To Charlottesville from Ferguson

August 15th, 2017

As I shook hands at the door after one of our services on Sunday, a parishioner came up to me. He was nearly in tears. He reminded me that he had recently moved to New York City from Charlottesville.

Even at that early moment, he could probably sense that Charlottesville–one of the most liberal cities in the South–was about to become a by-word for racial hatred and violence.

Another parishioner rightly urged our parish to take a strong stand on this issue. I believe we can do that, because racial tolerance is not an optional virtue to be acquired or not as the spirit moves you. This is no place for Anglican comprehensiveness. The Broad Church of Jesus Christ isn’t broad enough to include racists and anti-Semites. —J. Douglas Ousley

Fire and Fury

August 9th, 2017

Following the President’s threat against North Korea yesterday, a CNN correspondent was reporting from Hawaii. She was an expert in nuclear war damage and gave a long list of things Hawaiians should do in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack. For example, if they are in the city, they should go to the basement of the biggest building around; if they are in the country, they should go into caves.

A later commentator observed that this might have been an extreme reaction. War was not that imminent, he felt.

Whoever is right, the situation is alarming to any American. I was reminded of the nuclear war nightmares I had growing up during the Cold War of the 1950’s.

Whoever is right, Christians everywhere should be praying with all their might for peace. —J. Douglas Ousley


Words Fail

July 31st, 2017

Even the bleep-friendly media have been shocked by the language emanating recently from the White House. One such speaker terms his vocabulary, “colorful.” Christians are appalled; non-puritanical unbelievers are upset or, at best, amused.

Many appropriate Scripture verses suggest themselves. Jesus: “Let your yes be a plain yes, and your no no.” (Mt. 5.37) “Speak the truth in love.” (Eph. 4.15)

But the only verses that seem relevant to the current administration seem the many passages about conflict and brother being set against brother (Lk 12.53, etc).

Meanwhile, beyond all the White House psycho-drama, there are “wars, and rumors of wars.” (Mt. 24.6)–J. Douglas Ousley


July 24th, 2017

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently read Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens–a long and fascinating look at humanity, past, present, and future. Although it does not, in my view, treat religion fairly, the book is well worth reading.

As far as the future of Homo sapiens, Harari makes an interesting observation about the brave new world of bioengineering. He notes that if it becomes possible to bioengineer the human body to eliminate the effects of aging, that development won’t automatically lead to human happiness. For the first people to live indefinitely will be envied by those still age normally. And the elite who profit from bioengineering will still be afraid of accidental death.

Even utopias have their downsides. At least, this side of Heaven. —J. Douglas Ousley

Religion is Local

July 11th, 2017

“I am not a believer, but I still go to services at the church around the corner from my apartment, the Church of the Incarnation, not far from where I’m walking now. A free show. A museum, practically, with work by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Something to do, and some people who know me. My son, Johnny, learned to play the stately and formidable Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ there.”

This quotation comes from a lovely new novel by Kathleen Rooney entitled, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. The novel was recommended to me by the Rev. Amanda Kucik, a former Associate Rector of Incarnation. (As an aside, I would mention that Amanda is now expecting her first child in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

Ms. Rooney’s character is not entirely positive in her comment on Incarnation, but the remark does give an indication of how people sometimes see our church: great art and music, formal liturgy–lots to see and hear. On the other hand, the idea that we are a “museum” isn’t entirely complimentary! We may hope that we aren’t just preserving relics of the past, and we will want to look forward to the future and to whatever ministry God is calling us to.

But still, Lillian Boxfish reminds us that we have a local presence to numerous people who are not on our membership rolls. We have a duty to preserve our building, to present the finest worship we can, and to be open to those who are walking by. —J. Douglas Ousley

North Korea

July 5th, 2017

This past Sunday, I spoke at some length about the North Korean Christians and their suffering. I mentioned for example a report that they must pray with their eyes open; if they close their eyes and are caught praying, they can be sent to prison.

Two days later, the North Korean government launched what is apparently their first inter-continental ballistic missile. Christian peacemakers in America are now faced with the very difficult question of what to do in response to what is now a serious threat to our future peace.

If, for example, the North Koreans should send a nuclear warhead to Alaska, what would we do? A pacifist response wouldn’t seem sustainable. So is a pacifist solution possible now–or must we do something military to eliminate the threat?

I have no idea; I hope that our leaders think of something. While I pray with my eyes closed, I hope they will be acting with their eyes wide open. —J. Douglas Ousley


A Day in the Life

June 26th, 2017

The life of the parish priest is never dull.

In one 24-hour period last week, I joined in the conferring of the Eagle Scout rank to a parishioner, had coffee with the editor of a national church magazine, officiated at the funeral of a retired police officer from the 17th Precinct (which I serve as clergy liaison), and visited a rousing Family Friday party. These activities were in addition to the usual weekday service, meetings, etc.

No wonder that we clergy are so grateful for our vocations–we can’t believe we get paid for what we do!   —J. Douglas Ousley

Socialism Reconsidered

June 20th, 2017

I have always been struck by a major difference between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United Sates: the way clergy are paid. In England, all clergy receive basically the same salary or “stipend;” there are minor increases over the base for bishops and for clergy in London.

This wage is not high–equalling around $40,000 a year. A clergy family of four would qualify for public assistance, though they do receive housing in most cases.

Despite the low stipends, I have heard many English clergy claim their system is morally superior to the American scheme, whereby clergy in affluent parishes can make much higher salaries than those in poor areas. But a recent book by Dean Martyn Percy of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford claims that the Church of England would be rejuvenated by the American system, which would reward initiative and encourage church growth.

This is not to deny the moral value of the egalitarian formula. But, practically speaking, giving all clergy a substandard wage buys equality without fairness–and it does little to recruit new young clergy, which the Church of England desperately needs. At a time of increasingly left-of-center politics in the Episcopal Church hierarchy, the “capitalist” proposal by the very prominent liberal, Dean Percy is intriguing. —J. Douglas Ousley

Homeless in Murray Hill–III

June 13th, 2017

My first boss in the church would often say, if you complimented him on one of his sermons, “I always preach to myself.”

I certainly do the same. And I find the topics of my sermons regularly hit home in unexpected ways.

As it happens, I preached last Sunday on the problem of the homeless in our neighborhood. Lo and behold, two days later, I found myself arguing with a gentleman who has been sleeping regularly on our property. I suggested as I have many times that he find some other place to sleep, since the neighbors have complained. Although the man is young and apparently healthy, he appears to have significant mental issues. He certainly gets very angry at me.

What should I do? I can’t let the church become a campground. This man needs far more help with his life than I can give him. He is also potentially a danger to passers-by. I have contacted a friend in the local police precinct, but I know the police have little authority over the homeless.

What should I do? Nothing in my sermon answered that question. Suggestions welcome!–J. Douglas Ousley

Homeless in Murray Hill–II

June 5th, 2017

I’m preaching an old sermon this Sunday; it’s entitled, “Street People.” The sermon is about the Good Samaritan parable and how it might be applied to daily life. This message got a fair amount of feedback at the time, and a version was eventually published in the Christian Century magazine.

I rarely repeat sermons, as the context of sermons changes so rapidly that God’s message to a given moment may not apply to a different moment, even a few years later.

But I am curious to see how my early-90’s thoughts stand the test of time today, when we in Manhattan are facing a new flood of street people. Pope Francis recently had some noble words about always engaging in some way with beggars on the street. Many of us (who spend a lot more time navigating popular thoroughfares than the Pope does) may find his advice inadequate.

That said, I am still thinking about the proper Christian response to people on the street. —J. Douglas Ousley